Peasants' pressure for their own land is a challenge for Brazil's president

November 25, 1990|By New York Times News Service

SARANDI, Brazil -- As Juvino Rodrigues de Aquino cleared brush with a sickle, a straining ox team plowed long furrows, slowly opening black soil as rich as chocolate cake.

The scene was pastoral, but in fact the barefoot farmer and his brother were tilling land they had occupied illegally.

Land occupations in Brazil occur almost daily, presenting a growing challenge to Fernando Collor de Mello, the first civilian elected president here in 30 years.

Until 25 years of military rule ended in Brazil in 1985, the demands of millions of landless peasants were suppressed with violence. Unable to find land in Brazil, 250,000 emigrated to Paraguay and Argentina.

Millions of others went to the Amazon in military-designed colonization schemes or ended up in the slums ringing Brazil's coastal cities.

But as the military withdrew from power in the 1980s, Brazil's landless legions started to organize. In 1983, the Landless Rural Workers Movement was born here in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil's southernmost state. Growing steadily, the movement now operates in 18 states.

Rallying under the slogan "A lot of people without land -- a lot of land without people," the movement organized 50 or so of the 80 largest land occupations in Brazil last year, according to the Pastoral Land Commission, a Roman Catholic Church monitoring group. In October four landless peasants sponsored by the movement were elected to Brazil's Congress.

"We go into towns and preach agrarian reform to the four winds," said Darci Maschio, who helped organize the seizure here of the 20,000-acre farm now tilled by Mr. Rodrigues' family and 400 others.

"In 1991 it is virtually certain that there are going to be more occupations," Mr. Maschio said in his mud-floored cabin here.

Built from a lumberyard's cast-off pine slabs, the cabin was decorated with two posters of Che Guevara, a map of Nicaragua and a poster showing the movement's red flag and its new slogan, "Occupy, Resist, Produce."

Land conflicts in the fertile rolling hills of Rio Grande do Sul have been the sharpest in Brazil. Last year, 26,466 peasants were involved, the most in any of Brazil's 26 states. The clashes resulted in at least 403 injuries.

On Aug. 8 in Porto Alegre, the state capital, a pitched battle broke out when military policemen with bayonets charged peasants armed with hoes and sickles. About 70 people were hospitalized -- about two peasants for every policeman.

As the battle ebbed, one or more peasants took vengeance, killing a policeman by slashing his throat with a sickle.

Behind the violence and radical slogans is the desire by as many as 10 million Brazilian families to acquire land to farm.

"Eighty percent of the young people at Cruz Alta are often young couples," Mr. Maschio said, referring to the movement's largest encampment, where 1,400 families live. Like Mr. Rodrigues, many have been forced off the family farm by demographics.

"Here in Rio Grande do Sul, there is land," Mr. Rodrigues said as he sipped herbal tea in his shanty, which was decorated with a poster reading, "Without agrarian reform, there is no democracy."

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